We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Having just returned from a trip to Alaska, I am still amazed at a team hunting behavior used by humpback whales only in Southeast Alaska. They work cooperatively to effectively catch tons of herring per day. What does this have to do with what we do every day in the workplace? If you have ever been frustrated by a lack of good teamwork with professional or volunteer tasks, we may learn a few things from these leviathans.
Here are some features of the whale’s teamwork:
- Use loosely knit teams, with some ad hoc members, to achieve a goal
- Work in an orchestrated fashion, using proven strategy and a variety of tools
- Work cooperatively, not competitively, and seem to share leadership
We were fortunate to hear a lecture and presentation by Dr. Fred Sharp of the Alaska Whale Foundation. He has been researching these whales for about 25 years, and has spent extensive effort on this one phenomenon. He even uses a critter cam (a video camera suctioned to a participating whale - see video below) to get video footage of the teamwork from below the surface. The day after the lecture we had the amazing and rare experience of seeing a pod of 10-13 whales bubblenetting over 15 times from a boat at close range.
Because each humpback has a unique tail (or fluke) marking, Sharp has been able to document which whales are doing this and in which groupings. It turns out that about 50 whales in the region participate in bubblenetting regularly, so may recognize each other and have experience working together. However, there are perhaps 90 more whales that join bubblenetting groups as they come upon them and do not participate regularly with the set groupings (which can include as many as 25 whales!).
Here is how it works:
- A group of whales come together – keep in mind that these mammals are 50 feet in length and weigh about 50 tons (about the length of a city bus).
- They find a school of herring and all dive to the bottom (their preferred depth for this activity is about 150 ft).
- One whale emits a constant stream of bubbles in an open spiral pattern, so that they form a wall that gathers the school of fish – and effectively contains them.
- Another whale, or more than one, starts making shrill, urgent sounding calls (I could hear them clearly above the surface!) – that seem to reinforce the wall effect of the bubbles and keep the school in a tight ball.
- The whales flash the white underside of their board-like dorsal fins; this seems to scare the fish that try to escape back into the net.
- Then, seemingly without signal, the whole pod surges as a tight group up from the bottom with their huge, unhinged jaws open and scoop the whole school into their mouths.
- Researches state that even in loosely knit groups, the whales come up in the same position every time they bubblenet consecutively.
Despite all of the years of scientific research, observation, identification, and lab experimentation, much about this group feeding tactic is mysterious. However, by my own experience I can attest that it is powerful, elegant, and effective. How many human teams can we say that about?
Here is a video of Dr. Sharp and the whales bubblenetting. This explains the critter cam as well: